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Ealing remake could do with a dram

19 May 2017

Stephen Brown on new film releases


On the beach: a still from the film The Secret Scripture

On the beach: a still from the film The Secret Scripture

OF ALL the things that won’t cure the world’s ills, a wee dram is among the most popular. Or so the colour remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1949 Ealing comedy tells us.

As with the original, Whisky Galore (Certificate PG) is based on Compton Mackenzie’s novel. This time, the screenplay is by Peter Mc­­Dougall, a BAFTA Lifetime Achieve­ment Award winner. Unfor­tu­­­n­ately, this is not enough for the film to emulate its predecessor.

It is 1943, and the Todday island­ers’ whisky supply expires. During a storm, the freighter SS Cabinet Minister runs aground near Todday, and begins to sink, along with its cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky.

Obstacles stand in the way of rescuing the cargo: not the swirling Hebridean seas, but adherence to the sabbath, and a pompous English Home Guard commander, Waggett (Eddie Izzard). He tells his wife that, if the whisky ends up in Davy Jones’s locker, that is an act of God; if it ends up in anyone else’s locker, that is stealing.

It does not seem to be the view of Todday’s minister, the Revd Mac­alister (James Cosmo), a char­acter absent from the 1949 version. He may thunder from his pulpit (filmed in St Monan’s, Fife) on the need to obey the commandments, but he is nevertheless content to partake of the ship’s spoils.

There is great rejoicing in how whisky’s ingredients miracu­lously turn into liquid gold through the magic of God’s guid­ance. Ecu­men­ical relations are well advanced. The RC priest has filled the minister’s hip-flask with communion wine.

Mackenzie, who became a Roman Catholic in 1914, created in his novel two culturally distinct islands: Great Todday (Protestant) and Little Todday (RC). No such conflict ap­­pears in either film version.

Macalister, irrespective of denom­ina­tion, seems to represent what is best about Christianity. His forbear­ance, however, is not always shared by members of the Kirk. When Waggett rings George Campbell on a Sunday, his mother (Ann Louise Ross) refuses to let them talk. “Alexander Graham Bell, a God-fearing Christian and devout man that he was, even if he did go to Canada, did not invent the tele­phone for it to be given to man to mock the sabbath.”

It is noticeable that this new film believes it necessary to spell out to modern audiences what observance of the Lord’s Day means.

The plot largely rests on a battle of wits between Presbyterian casu­istry and officious military per­­sonnel; a couple of romances are thrown in for good measure. It is this latter element that leavens the lump, giving any strait-laced islan­ders the necessary excuse to toast the lovers with whisky galore.

Rather in the manner of Babette’s Feast (1987), refreshments bring about spiritual changes; but, unlike that film, not very convincingly. Those with pride and prejudice are unlikely to have repented so easily.

The movie is less a comedy, more “Whimsy Galore”. It kept the best laugh until the final credit: “No alcohol was consumed in the mak­ing of this film”. Perhaps that was the problem.


“ONE for sorrow, two for joy,” the elderly Rose (Vanessa Redgrave) says in The Secret Scripture (12A). Turning to her new psychiatrist, Stephen Grene (Eric Bana), she asks: “Which one are you?” She is in an Irish mental hospital to which she was committed, diagnosed criminally insane, more than 50 years ago.

Apparently, during the Second World War, she killed her newborn baby, and, for some reason, Grene has been asked after all this time by the Archbishop to look into her case.

The writer-director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) portrays an Ireland that is riven with patri­archy. In a film that uses flash­backs to the early 1940s, Rooney Mara plays the younger Rose.

After being bombed in Ulster, she is sent to the Republic, and stays with her aunt in Ballytivan, Co. Sligo. She catches several men’s attention, including Father Gaunt (Theo James), who becomes obs­­essed with her. She rebuffs him: “You’re a priest who also wants to be a man. Make up your mind.”

As a non-Catholic, she needs to tread carefully, lest she is viewed as threatening Nationalist aspirations for Irish unification. Rose’s associa­tion with Michael (Jack Reynor), also Protestant, adds to the uneasi­ness surrounding her.

The baby she gives birth to was Michael’s, but suspicion falls on the priest. Gaunt has her commit­ted on the grounds of nympho­mania.

All this is made known to Grene via Rose’s old Bible, which she used as a notebook. Along the mar­­­gins and across the text she de­­scribes the cruel way she has been treated. Love of the absent Michael remains strong. We are shown pages of scripture: often passages of hope in Job, Exodus, and Mark, etc., where Rose has scrawled and illustrated her history.

Throughout this dreamlike captivity, Rose has striven to make sense of life in the light of Holy Writ, finding echoes in a page from Daniel headed “Interpreta­tion of the dream”. “There’s a sadness in people,” she tells Grene, “that stops them seeing the truth”. Joy some­how prevails within her.

The Secret Scripture covers some of the same ground as The Mag­dalene Sisters, and Philomena (Arts, 1 November 2013), but with more understanding of the religious and social mores of that time. Making a clear distinction between sentiment and sentiment­ality, the film knows how to move us to tears.

One can over­­look old Rose being a good eight inches taller than her younger version, but coloured con­tact lenses would have removed the discrep­ancy between Mara’s green eyes and Redgrave’s blue ones.

Equally, Sheridan does not handle the story’s coincidences well. In a faith-filled movie, prov­idence gives way to improb­ability. Is it less far-fetched in Sebastian Barry’s Man Booker prize-winning novel, per­haps? I hope so.

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